5435 words (21 minute read)

Chapter 4 - Back to Braid

Alyx ran as fast as she could. Past the collapsed shelter she’d taken cover behind the other day. Familiar bloodstains still marked the walls and floor from where she’d stumbled. Vermin and children alike scurried out of her way as she made her unrelenting journey.

Navigating the Outer City was a piece of cake for her. Running was not just her job, but her passion. She loved it. She knew these streets --if they could even be called streets-- like the back of her hand. Sure, they ebbed and flowed like mating snakes; a house could be there one day and then gone the next. But it was a predictable kind of chaos.

The Inner City however, was as rigid and organized as the Suits within. It was an orgy of bureaucracy. Stepping through those gates, you’d have to be careful not to drown in forms, red tape and surveillance. Every movement was documented. If not, you were committing treason.

This time, Alyx had no Jessi and Darla to help smuggle her in. She had to do things the proper way; armed with nothing but her forged alias and natural charm.

Inside those walls, Alyx did not exist.

She cursed as she happened upon a queue. A line of a dozen or so stony-faced people blocked each checkpoint, all waiting to get into the city. Probably a Shadow Zombies concert or something, she figured.


She had no other option than to wait patiently.

It was twenty minutes before she reached the guard. He was a large man; the sort that could crush your neck with his thighs, or snap your spine like a twig. He bore obvious cybernetic eyes, shiny chrome, likely customized for the job. Unlike most Inner City folk however, he bore tattoos - three teardrops beneath his left eye.

"ID?" he asked, bored.

Alyx reached out her hand. The man put a pen on the end of her index finger, then pressed a button. Alyx winced as a needle shot forth and drew blood. There was a whir, followed by a hiss, as the pen processed and then cleaned itself.

He studied a small screen on his wrist for a moment, then nodded. Alyx took a step forward, but the man reached out an arm to block her way.

"No guns."

Alyx stopped, puzzled. Then remembered the news.

Goddamn Penitents.

"I have a permit," she said, reaching into her pocket.

"Don’t care," --he looked at the screen again-- "Elizabeth," the guard folded his arms. "No guns. Period."

"So what do I do with it?" Alyx asked. "Just drop it and move on?"

The guard sneered, then gave a very brief chuckle. "If you want. As I said. Don’t care."

Alyx could feel the mounting impatience of the trio of teens behind her. As well as her own restlessness.

She made a show of tossing the gun to one side, letting it clatter down into the mud. The guard grinned in response, stepping to one side.

"Don’t cause trouble," he sighed, giving Alyx the impression he knew full well otherwise.

Once she was in the city, Alyx did a brief check of her persons. She was down a gun, but she still had her knife and multi-tool. She set off for Harper’s house, turning on her commlink and contacting Invictus.

"Damnit Mae. Just had my gun confiscated at the gates."

The response was obvious.

"Told you. Knives win."


Harper sat in an armchair with a glass of wine in one hand and a good book in the other. Every minute he glanced at the lonely clock atop his mantelpiece, counting down the time to 20:41. In the meantime, he’d read. He’d always been a sucker for a good romance story. His whole life had been one great big tale of woe. He had no living family, a line of dead girlfriends and a Ghost in his study. It was nice to escape.

He checked the time. Two minutes to go. Sliding his bookmark into the book, he set it down, finished off his wine, and moved to shut the blinds. The lights came on automatically, sensing the drop in light levels and bathing the room in their soft, flickering orange glow. He smiled contentedly.

One minute to go.

Ghosts are a product of the DeadNet phenomena, he recounted. They are not real. Conversing with, or acknowledging the existence of, Ghosts is a true crime, and thus punishable by Sheol.

Of course, Charon issuing that exact statement merely confirmed what anyone with half a brain had already pieced together. Ghosts were real, and Charon was scared of them. The burning question was: where did they come from? Sheol was high on the list of probable sources, followed by the Afterlife, and then Purgatory - the field of Souls not trapped by SNet, and which instead rotted unabated.

It was a crime Harper liked. It meant he could break the law from the comfort of his own armchair.

There was a slight popping noise as a being materialized in the chair he’d previously been sitting on. It was an elderly man; with crinkled skin and a buzzcut, dressed in a thick sweater and jeans. A pair of reading glasses were on a chain around his neck, and his eyes seemed to move independently of one another. All colour about him seemed to be dulled and grey, blending together as though there were no real boundaries to him.

"Hi Mark," Harper said, pulling up a stool opposite him. "Do you know where you are?"

The Ghost stared blankly at him. Harper sighed. He was pretty sure his name wasn’t Mark. But it was the best he could do. The Ghost didn’t talk. It didn’t even recognize or acknowledge him. It just sat, and would then vanish eleven minutes later.

Harper had tried everything to get the Ghost to talk. He’d tried playing cards, turning on the TV, sitting on top of him, making him tea; the list went on. He was even considering getting Kylie in for ideas now. That alone told him he was clutching at straws.

He switched on the TV, turning this time to the Designated Music Channel. Immediately he was bombarded by scantily clad extras, prominent breasts and bulging abs. Some form of pre-Conception ’pop’ music. The Noughties were making a comeback it seemed.

’Mark’s foot tapped in time with the music, Harper noticed.

At last! Recognition.

Harper turned up the volume, apologizing to himself for the assault of discordant melodies. He grimaced.

"I’m a playah playah playah-"

The agony was endless. At least the Ghost was enjoying it. Its head was even beginning to bob to the beat.

He waited it out. As soon as the ’song’ was over, Harper switched the TV off again, and addressed the Ghost.

"Hi Mark."

"Oh, hello," Mark spoke, causing Harper to jump a little. Its voice was raspy and sibilant, droning in monotone.

"Do you know where you are?" Harper asked.

"Hmm," the Ghost stroked his chin. "Vancouver, right?"

Interesting development, Harper thought. "Yes," he said. "But we call it Braid now."

Like most cities, it had been renamed in the Great Reshuffle. This came during Charon’s rise to dominance.

"Fascinating," the Ghost said, then remained silent.

"Do you have a name?" Harper asked. "Or is it actually Mark?."

The Ghost shook his head, lips sealed.

"Mark it is then."

Harper continued to stare at the Ghost. It was motionless, vacant. The more he stared at it, the less defined it seemed to be.

"Do you know Charon?" he asked after a moment.

Mark’s head revolved rapidly, snapping to face Harper. The Ghost’s pupils dilated more than should have been possible, then quickly contracted to no wider than a needle. It let out a low, rumbling hiss, like that of a pissed-off rattlesnake.

"Bunch of rotten bastards," it said.

"Okay," Harper said, taking a step back. "That’s clarified your stance on the matter."

"My s-s--stance?" the Ghost spat. "My contempt for them transcends definition. Those s-sadists will be the death of us all."

"Right," Harper exhaled. That cleared things up somewhat. "Why?"

The Ghost gave him a blank stare, the kind that just said: ’really?’.

"Forget I asked."

"Not too s-smart for a Visionary, are you?" the Ghost sighed.

There came a knock upon the door. The Ghost seemed unfazed. Harper hesitated, not wanting to answer it. If that was the Szevens, and they saw him talking to a Ghost, he was screwed.

He looked through the spy-hole. There was a fishbowl view of a very out-of-breath Alyx, propping herself up on the door frame. He said a silent thank you, then unchained the door and opened it, letting her in.

"Harper?" she panted. "We got a situation. There-"

She stopped, staring at the armchair on which the Ghost sat. It was looking straight at her.

"Harper..." Alyx said uneasily. "Who’s this?"

"Oh," he said, shutting the door and making sure no-one was listening. "This is Mark. He’s the Ghost who lives in my living room."

"Oh," Alyx looked blankly. "Hi Mark."

Mark stared at her. The only response she got out of it was a cocking of its head.

"He hates Charon," Harper clarified. "So, we’re all friends here. He’s just not very chatty."

"Not friends," Mark interjected.

"Roomies then," Harper shrugged, then addressed Alyx. "What’s up?"

"Charon know," Alyx said, pacing around the room and looking to and from the Ghost. "Your super-basement. The smuggling ring. They know about Jessi too. They’ve got it all on a map. In short; we need to run."

"Oh," Harper said, loudly cursing on the inside. He maintained a professional demeanor. "How long have they known?"

"No clue. At least a week. I’m here to get Kylie, and help you pack up shop"

"Fair does," Harper said, grabbing his swivel chair and planting himself down. "Give me a sec to track her implant. I wouldn’t worry about me though. I’ll be fine."

Harper tapped away on his computer. Alyx stood nearby, helping herself to a glass of mysterious red alcohol. Port maybe? She tapped her foot impatiently and downed it.

It was surprisingly tasty.

There was a quiet pop. Mark vanished. Alyx looked to Harper. "Whaaat-"

"-don’t ask. Here," Harper interrupted. "She’s with Abby. At the lab. If-" He froze, looking at his second monitor. A pop-up kindly informed him that somebody had triggered the proximity alarms under his lab. "-shit. Someone’s in my basement," Harper finished.

He opened the top drawer of his desk, withdrawing both a taser and a magnum. He handed the gun to Alyx, then strapped the taser to his waist. He grabbed his coat, immediately heading for the door.

"Could be the girls," Alyx said. "You never know."

"We can only hope." He hustled outside, glancing back at the empty chair.

Sorry old man. I’ll be back for you.


Kylie was all set for their break-in, dressed in her darkest blouse and trousers and carrying a black messenger bag. Her hair was held back in a tight ponytail, clipped into place for added security. Abigail on the other hand, was now dressed in her bear onesie, hood pulled up and ursine ears on display. There was an unease in the air, as though somehow polluted. Neither girl wanted to talk about their close shave with a Penitent bomb. Besides, they had a project now. This was their distraction.

They were currently in the basement; a vast room full of broken equipment, backup equipment and any spares they had yet to cycle out or new stuff to cycle in. A heavy door operated by a turn-wheel and a keypad lay at the far end of the room, defending a huge assortment of seeds and saplings in cryogenic storage. Both girls knew that there were some incredibly rare seeds in there, and only Harper knew the code.

 So if there was a secret lab below their feet, it was bound to contain something even more exciting.

"How are we meant to get down there?" Kylie asked, trying to pry the elevator doors open with her hands.

"Beats me," Abby said, playing with her bear ears. "You’re the one breaking in."

"But you’re the mastermind." Kylie said, straining. "If we can get these doors open, we could climb down."

"Have you not read any horror stories? We’ll get crushed. People have their heads chopped off."

"That’s just stories," Kylie said, backing away from the door. "People don’t really die in elevators."

"Except for when they try climbing down the shafts."

"You got a better idea?" Kylie snapped.

"Yeah. Go back to sleep?" Abby said, hitting the button to call the elevator.

There was a moment of silence, followed by a brief ding as the elevator arrived. The sounds of muzak played from within, a gentle harpsichord piece, accompanied by a clarinet.

"Or," Abby said. "We figure out how to send the actual lift down. There must be a way, right?"

"Oh. That does make sense." Kylie grabbed Abby by the shoulders, hugging her tight. "See the things we can do when we work together?"

Abby sighed as the two girls boarded the lift, hitting the button to close the doors. They inspected the array of buttons before them. There were the numbers -1 through 10, with them currently being at the lowest it could go. They could also close the doors, or open them, or hit the emergency alarm. Kylie couldn’t see any button marked ’secret floor’.

"Maybe it’s a combination?" Kylie said. "Like a password or something."

"Or a button hidden somewhere."

The girls pondered for a moment.

"Fine," Abby sighed. "You look for a hidden button, I’ll try a load of combinations."

Kylie nodded, then started running her hands along the panels of the walls of the elevator. She jumped a little as it suddenly started moving, first up a few floors, then down, then up again. This process repeated for some time.

After a few minutes of searching and mashing buttons, they stopped and turned to each other.

"Well that was fun," Abby said sarcastically. "Can I go to bed now?"

"Wait," Kylie said, jabbing her in the ribs and bending over to inspect something.

There was one place they had yet to search. A small panel in a far corner, labeled ’maintenance’ and sporting a little keyhole. Abby bent over to inspect it likewise, rubbing her ribs.

"You got the keys, right Abs?" Kylie asked.

"Does it look like this thing has pockets?" Abby said, spreading her arms. "I’m a bear not a kangaroo."

"Ah," Kylie said exasperated. She pressed the button for the third floor, grinning at Abby. "Wait here."

Once the doors opened again, Kylie shot out in search of the keys. Which they totally did not have or know anything about.

They were a present from Kylie to Abby on her birthday two years ago. She figured she’d want the run of the whole lab, and access to everything, so she’d concocted a wicked scheme to steal them. But Abby had been content where she was, and the present ended up being more for Kylie than anyone else, so she could poke into every floor.

She returned in a few minutes, finding Abby sitting in the corner next to the keyhole. Kylie tried each of the many keys in turn, the sharp jangling of the keys scraping at Abigail’s sanity.

There was a click. The elevator doors closed without warning, causing Abby to jump up in shock. They descended, the lights above the door indicating the floor all blinking in a pattern kind of like a loading bar.

They came to a halt after a few seconds. The doors opened.

The floor looked very much like any other floor in the lab; rows of vegetation with sprinkler systems and heavy lamps. The plants were unlike anything either of the girls had ever seen before in person. Rows of heavy greenery, many-leaved plants with narrow serrated edges down one side of the room, and chive-like plants that grew in long stalks on the other. The middle of the room contained a vast variety of mushrooms, neatly colour--coordinated and sorted.


Abby was first out of the elevator, running up to the fungi and following the rows of tables down the room. She did her best to restrain herself from poking anything potentially poisonous, instead satisfying herself with heavy inspection and gushing enthusiasm.

The red labeled mushrooms bore skulls, she noted. They held a variety of bleach white and spotted red mushrooms. Deathcaps and Destroying Angels, Abby recognized. The other section held psychedelics, though she wasn’t particularly confident with identifying those ones. The deadly ones were much more interesting.

"Umm, Abby," Kylie whispered, tugging on her sleeve for her attention. "Look over here..."

Abby looked up, then froze. In her excitement over all the fungi she’d missed the other, non-vegetative things in the room.


Lots of guns.

Assault and sniper rifles, shotguns and pistols hung from neatly-placed screws. Ammo was strewn across the tables, complete with grenades, blocks of c4 and other explosives. There were also vials and bottles of various liquids and powders.

They had wandered into a veritable arsenal.

"Woah," was all Abby could manage to say. She’d spotted the distillation apparatus, wherein lay a collection of labeled vials and tiny jars. Drugs, most likely. Maybe some poisons. She approached, intrigued.

"Well," Kylie said, still awestruck by all the guns. "We know what the secret floor is for now."

Abby picked up a collection of vials, reading their labels. They all held a collection of white or tan powders, some of them liquids, some crushed leaves. The red labeled ones Abby recognized as poisons, but the others, with the blue labels were beyond her. She handed a few to Kylie, asking her if she recognized any of the names on the vials.

Kylie knew her drugs. She had a father in law enforcement and an extensive box set collection.

"Expy. Ampy. P5. Fuzz. TripBalls," Kylie said, eyes lighting up. "This is stuff that people pay *a lot* of money for. Or kill for. Maybe we should--"

"No... don’t," Abby pleaded, trying to snatch the vials back before the other girl could ingest anything. She’d recognized the spark of discovery in Kylie’s eyes.

"Come on Abs," Kylie said, taking a step back. "When are we ever going to get the chance to try P5 again?"

"Probably never. And I’m strangely okay with that. Now put it back before Harper notices it’s missing."

"Have you seen how much shit he has here?" Kylie gestured to the whole table. "He’s not gonna notice a few missing vials."

Abby took a step towards her, making another snatch for the vials. She missed.

"Didn’t you just say that this stuff is worth ’a lot of money’?" Abby pointed out. "You know Harper - he’s organized. He’s bound to have an inventory list around here somewhere."

"Fiiine," Kylie sighed, handing the vials back. "Have it your way. Spoilsport."

"Thank you," Abby placed the vials back on the counter. Making sure Kylie hadn’t held on to anything. She hadn’t, Abby figured. She was too busy pouting.

"You know I’m only looking out for your right?" Abby continued, putting a hand on Kylie’s shoulder. "I mean, what if he mixed up the labels? Or you remembered wrong? You might wind up more dead than high. And don’t people go nuts trippin’ on Ampy? Do you even know what a standard dose is? And what if you’re allergic, or they mess with your implant?"

Kylie stared sheepishly. She didn’t much feel like arguing. Besides, she’d just slip a vial into her pocket when she wasn’t looking.

"Umm, Kaz," Abby whispered, breaking the subsequent silence and tugging on the other girl’s sleeve. "Is that what I think it is?"

Kylie followed her eyes to the top of an adjacent wall, scanning through the vast collection of weaponry for whatever it was that Abigail had seen. She used this opportunity to pocket a vial at random, hoping for something fun. She then did a double take when she saw the device in question.

"Yes Abby," Kylie affirmed. "That is a bazooka." At least she assumed that’s what the strange pipe-like object with a trigger was.

"Kylie," Abby took a step away from it. "Why does our boss have a bazooka?"

"Well he is very protective of his rosemary."


The girls stood in silence, wondering if there was any way their boss could get more disturbing. A bleach white sheet in a corner beckoned their curiosity, as if in answer.

"Dare we?" Kylie asked, looking to the sheet. It seemed to cover some sort of table, and a lot of heavy machinery.

"Can anything I say change your mind?" Abby sighed.

"Nope," Kylie beamed. "It’s this or the Fuzz."

Abigail shook her head, following close behind, defeated. She shot out a hand to intercept Kylie’s when she went to pull back the sheet.

"What if it’s a body, Kaz?"

Kylie’s eyebrows raised in consideration. She leaned over the sheet, inhaling deeply.

"Doesn’t smell like a body."

"That was disgusting," Abby grimaced.

Kylie shrugged, grabbed the sheet in one hand, then whipped it away, revealing a modified hospital gurney. There were a collection of monitors beside it, as well as a few IV lines and bags of fluid. A table held a scalpel and pair of forceps, both of which lay atop a chunky laptop. Both girls approached, curious.

"Well at least it’s not a body," Abby noted.

"No," Kylie admitted. "It’s just... creepy."

"What is it? Medical stuff?"

Kylie picked up one of the IV lines. One end was a long, frilly length of hair-like substance, tipped with a long needle. There was some sort of a port at the other end, the sort that hooked up to a laptop.

"Oh!" Kylie realized what it was, immediately dropping the IV lines and wiping it down with her sleeve. Abby raised an eyebrow, taking two steps away from the gurney and looking around anxiously.

"What is it?"

"It’s a tether," Kylie said, stepping back to join Abby. "You know, so you can upload yourself to SoulNet and still come back."

"What, for like, talking to dead people?"

"Exactly," Kylie confirmed.

"Isn’t that... illegal?"


"Like... very illegal?"


"Well why the hell’s he got that?!"

Kylie shushed her, clamping a hand over her mouth. Her breath was warm, and strangely tingly. "You know what else is illegal? Arms trafficking. Drugs. That sort of thing."

"Mmbf-" Abby mumbled, trying to remove the hand. When Kylie removed it and wiped it on her trousers, Abby said: "Yeah, but they’re not..."

"Sheol-worthy?" Kylie noted.


"Depends how good your lawyer is," Kylie shrugged. "Sometimes it is."

"Is our boss a spy or something?" Abby asked.

Kylie had no words.

But someone else answered for her.

"Not quite," came a voice from behind them.

The girls froze, neither daring to turn around. They didn’t need to - they knew that voice.



Abby and Kylie stared sheepishly at Harper as he exited the lift. He glared right back, jaw clenched and a frustrated look in his eyes. He seemed on edge, frayed and volatile. He was glancing around and jumping at every unexpected sound. He had a strange device on his belt, a bit like a gun only chunkier.

Standing to his side was a woman they had never met before. She had bright red hair, tied back in a ponytail. A pistol was strapped to her belt, which itself was supporting a pair of rather short shorts, and there was a knife tucked into each boot. A plain white vest quite clearly emphasized her impressive physique - she was Outer City, no doubt about that. And fit too. But there was a weary look in her eyes - a mixture of resignation and fear. Said eyes were currently fixed accusingly on Kylie.

"Girls," Harper said, taking a step forward. He beckoned them towards him.

They complied. Abby looked at the ground the whole way, shuffling her feet. Kylie did her best to maintain eye contact with him, trying not to let her fear show. Whoever this was, he certainly wasn’t the boss they knew. Her Harper was lovely, easy-going and full of jokes. He certainly did not grow Fuzz in the basement, own multiple assault rifles and stockpile explosives.

Alyx moved away from him, heading over towards the assortment of weapons on the wall. If this place were to be raided, she thought, she might as well save what she can. She filled the sack on her belt with vials like a kid in a candy store. Or any food store, for that matter.

"I’m sure you girls have lots of questions," Harper said, turning a blind eye to the Runner looting his stash. "But save them till later, okay?"

Kylie reached for Abby’s hand and held it, not reacting in any other way to her boss.

"Kylie, look," he said, stepping towards her again. "Your mother was a friend of mine ages back. An important friend. She helped us keep Britain on its feet as long as we could. Back when it existed. We failed, as you know. Lost my brother to the plague. Your mother... died, some time later. I promised her I would do my best to give you a good life. Inner City. Comfortable."

Shot herself, Alyx noted mentally, wondering whether she could get away with taking the bazooka.

Abby squeezed Kylie’s hand, reminding her that she was still there.

"I don’t have many friends here," Harper continued. "Certainly none I’d trust you to. So you need to go with Alyx, Kylie. She’ll take you to the Uncivil Union, where you’ll be taken out of the city. Abigail, you’re going to have to go home and find another job. This-"

"No," Abigail interrupted, looking up to meet his eyes. "I’m not going back."

Wherever they went, they’d go together. Both knew that.

"Kylie’s bound for the Outer City Abby," Harper said softly. "You have no idea what it’s like."

"To be fair though Harper," Alyx said, walking up behind the girls and planting a hand on each shoulder. "Neither have you. I mean, I have though, and they’ll be with me. Which I’d expect is much safer than being alone in the big city."

"Do I not get a say in this?" Kylie asked.

"No," Alyx stated, a bit too happily. "Sorry hun, but our generation don’t get choices."

Kylie chewed on her lip, less than pleased.

"Besides, Abby has parents to stay with," Harper pointed out.

"Yeah, but they’re sh- awful," Abby stated.

"They’re worse than mine," Kylie added. "Adoptive parents, obviously."

Harper’s eyes moved to Abby. She looked up at him, wordlessly. Something about her pleading eyes struck a chord with Harper. She had that same defeated look he’d seen Ruth have, decades back when they were teens.

"Okay," he caved.

Kylie ran up to him, throwing her arms around his girth. Abby just stood there, smiling and saying a silent thank you.

"Right then," Alyx grinned. "There isn’t a moment to lose."

"Wait, just like that?" Kylie said.

"Just like that. We have no idea how long you’re safe for here. Could be hours, could be days. Could already be too late."

"Oh," Kylie said dejected.

"All my stuff’s upstairs already," Abby noted. Living in the lab had its perks.

"Can we have a gun?" Kylie asked with genuine excitement.

"No," he said firmly.

"I think they should," Alyx noted. "Things can get quite tasty out there."

"Have either of you ever fired a gun before?" Harper asked the two girls.

"Only in sims..." Kylie answered. Abby just shook her head silently.

"That answers that then," Harper told Alyx. "I’m not having them responsible for maiming each other."

"But..." Kylie pouted.

"Sorry Kylie," Alyx whispered.

"Okay, here’s what’s going to happen," Harper said, leading them to the elevator. "Alyx here is going to lead you two to the Uncivil Union, a pub run by some friends of ours. There you will be given a makeover, then get smuggled into the Outer City. We can’t run the risk of getting caught out. If Charon know about us, they’ll be keeping tabs on our movements. The last thing we need is them thinking that you’re involved. Not till you’re safely outside."

"We are though, aren’t we?" Kylie asked warily.

"Yeah," Alyx nodded, interrupting Harper. "Sucks doesn’t it? Your mom pissed some people off and now you’re still paying the price. You’re not alone."

"That’s reassuring... I think."

"Anyway," Harper continued. "Once you’re out of the city, Alyx here will lead you to the Invictus Headquarters, where you’ll meet Ruth and Hernando. She’ll settle you in to your new home."

New home. Abby was loving life in a multistory farmhouse. Somehow the idea of uprooting again was sounding less pleasing; even if it did mean getting away from her parents.

"You don’t have to come if you don’t want to," Kylie told Abby, seeing her hesitation. "Right Harper?"

"Yup," Harper nodded. "Her family’s clean, her record’s spotless and we’re under no obligation to keep an eye on her. We could probably swing it as ’wrong place wrong time’ and let her go home. There’d be an investigation of course. Worst case is she gets brought in for questioning and a slap on the wrist."

Abigail stared ahead for a while, lost in thought. She had one question.

"Is there a greenhouse?"

Alyx looked to Harper, then to Abby, then burst out laughing. She tried talking, but ended up making nothing but noises like a clubbed seal.

Harper clarified instead. "It’s a giant farm."

That was the last bit of incentive she needed.

As soon as Alyx had stopped laughing, she picked up a grenade off the desk and clipped it to her belt, hiding it behind her shirt. It was only a flashbang, she pointed out, just in case they needed it. Then the three girls got in the elevator, and pushed the button for the ground floor, leaving Harper behind in the basement.

"Wait," Alyx said, slamming a hand in the way of the door. "You’re not coming?"

Harper shook his head. "I have some things I need to take care of. Besides, I want to make sure as much of this stuff finds its way to Invictus. And as little as possible to Charon."

Kylie and Abby shared an apologetic look. Harper was the only other person they really knew; now he was leaving them on their own with this action star wannabe.

"I’ll join you later," Harper said, noting their hesitation. "That’s a promise."

Alyx took her hand off the door. "You better," she said, glaring at him.

The doors shut, and they ascended.